Between egoism and altruism

HAVE you ever been in a situation where you feel that being ethical requires a choice between doing what is good for you and doing what is right?

In ethics we refer to the good for you (good for self) option as 'egoism'. Egoism is a powerful force which can manifest in ugly character traits such as extreme selfishness and greed. However egoism is not always unethical.

Here's an example. Most of us are fortunate enough to have two functional kidneys, although we only need one to live long and healthy lives. Although there are many patients waiting for the donation of one healthy kidney most of us refuse to help. Why? This is egoism. Maybe we justify our decision by considering the risk or pain of surgery, the risk of losing a kidney in the future, or the unknown consequences for the recipient, or their specific individual circumstances or character. However this is still egoism as we consider benefits to the self above all else.

An alternative to egoism is 'altruism'. This is where we prioritise benefits to others; what is right is what best serves the overall interests of others. Clearly the altruistic act is to donate the kidney. However altruism is not the only path to morality, and it is certainly not the path that most ethical people tread.

In fact, the moral path is often a compromise between egoism and altruism. Some degree of self-interest is morally acceptable, otherwise we would have reckless disregard for our own wellbeing and we would donate both kidneys. However morality does place some limitations on an acceptable degree of egoism.

The famous British philosopher Thomas Hobbes predicted a world ruled by self-interest would descend into chaos as we compete for a limited supply of resources. Hobbes' solution was that we voluntarily enter into a moral social contract where we allow the State to rule over us in the interest of peace, security and well being. But the State does not decide whether I donate my kidney; this is a personal choice, at least in our society.

The logical extension of the argument for some compromise between egoism and altruism is that sometimes the loss of benefit to the self from the altruistic act will be greater than the benefits to others. In this case the moral act is egoistic. Alternatively, in some cases we can give up very little to help others, which leads to the moral act being altruistic.

Neither altruism nor egoism provides a universal rational choice; morality lies somewhere between and we need to consider each case on its merits. Now unfortunately this does not tell me whether I should donate a kidney. One way to answer this question is to use the utilitarian (consequential) approach.

Utilitarians compare the expected negative consequences of donating a kidney (pain, risk, inconvenience, cost etc) with the expected benefits to the recipient (increased life expectancy and improved quality of life) and all others affected by this act (family, friends) and your own sense of wellbeing from committing such a selfless act.

Of course this comparison of expected consequences is subjective. However when we know the potential recipient, if it is someone we love, the expected benefits will magnify quickly and may well outweigh the risks.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.


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